Sorting Isn’t Always Simple

Alfred Thompson, , Feb 18, 2014
Commentary by Stephen Downes

Nice little lesson in sorting in computing science taken from the Olympic games, namely, that for any data set, there is any number of ways to sort. For my own part, I have always maintained that the really had thing is counting (this, btw, is why most quantitative analysis is fiction). Take Olympic medals, for example. We count each medal won once, right? Well, not so fast. When the four-man bobsled team wins gold, they hand out four gold medals. So why does that count as only one in the standings? And how is it that a speed skater could potentially win half a dozen medals at a single Olymic games while a figure skater could only possibkly earn one? If figure skating were like speed skating, there would be a separate medal for figures (which would still exist), short program, and long program (with an additional competition on a different type of ice surface). No, counting is fraught with difficulties. Pure mathematics can avoid the question of what counts as 'one', but no applied mathematics can evade the question.

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